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Merrill in Correspondence

[Four of Merrill’s letters were reprinted in the September 1995 Poetry, the memorial issue to Merrill. They reveal that Merrill was as witty in his correspondence as he was in his poetry. All the letters were to Stephen Yenser, author of the seminal study The Consuming Myth, the first book-length analysis of Merrill’s work. Yenser met Merrill in 1967 when he took a 6-week course from him at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In this excerpt from a letter of November 22, 1971, Merrill is describing a plane trip home in which he, exhausted by delays of up to seven hours, found himself, as he says, "sitting next to a maniac" (who had, to Merrill’s ire, just shown up in time to hop on the plane). Though this portrait of an ultimately annoying individual is primarily humorous, it is also more: it reveals Merrill’s own tactful responses to the boorish as well as his low opinion of a "genius" theory of progress. Ultimately, though, the "maniac" is Merrill’s complete other – that which he reacts against as utterly negative.]

… I found myself sitting next to a maniac. … who instantly produced a sheaf of papers and began to scribble in a sick chicken-track hand. I glimpsed words like Struggle and Fate, and once a whole phrase – "the raisin loses its point." Soon he put the papers back into a small battered aluminum valise. That’s a handy suitcase, I said. (We had already spoken when he sat down; he, not knowing when planes generally left for NY, had arrived at the airport by bus, just in time to get on ours. That made me furious. You should have phoned at least, I said. But then I wouldn’t have made the plane, he pointed out. I’ve travelled a good deal, he added, this is how things work out for me most of the time.) His aluminum case was originally made to hold roller-skates, he now said … Then he began talking about literature and Great Ideas. We talked for hours. It was like [Edward Albee’s] the Zoo Story. I wanted to kill him. Nietzsche, Kazantzakis, Kimon Friar (whose lectures he had heard). Start at the top of the mountain, go beyond the furthest extremes of human consciousness. Risk exposing your soul to the cosmos like a raisin to the sun (aha!). I suggested he might learn something from Rilke, the modesty of whose early work seemed particularly appealing. He wrote down the name. Then I addressed to a closed door a little speech about how the Great Ideas, far from being the achievements of men of genius (or look what happens when they are – Nietzsche + Hitler, Einstein + Hiroshima), are the works of thousands of anonymous generations, and take the form of those brain-coral reefs, slow myths + taboos, which keep the shark from the shallows our children swim in, and now if you don’t mind I have taken a pill and must try to get some sleep – no, I’m afraid this last is esprit d’escalier [French: literally, "spirit of the stairs"; the slang expression refers to a witty repartee that occurred to a speaker only after the occasion for it had passed]. One tries to be gentle to the nutty and besides one didn’t want to wake up with one’s throat cut.

From James Merrill, "Four Letters to Stephen Yenser," Poetry 166:6 (September 1995), 329-330.

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